Interview with Jonathan Evison, 2019 Alex Award Winner

The Alex Awards are given to ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18. For more information about the award and previous winners, check out the Alex Awards page on the YALSA website.

Jonathan Evison is the author of Lawn Boy, published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing. Twenty-something Mike Muñoz is passionate about the art of landscaping–a fresh cut lawn and a creative topiary. Caught between taking care of his mother and brother and trying to strike out on his own, Mike is not-so-patiently waiting for a lucky break. His struggle is familiar and heartbreaking, and it’s impossible not to root for him as he chases the elusive American Dream.

Becky Reiser, 2019 Alex Award committee member, interviewed Jonathan Evison about his book.

First, of all, I really enjoyed Lawn Boy! Where did you get the idea for Mike Muñoz to work as a “landscape artist”? Was it important that he had a job doing manual labor?
I’ve always wanted to write a novel about class in America, and ultimately I decided I wanted to write it from the perspective of a laborer. Among the many jobs I worked before I managed to scratch out a living as a novelist was landscaper. For years I worked in wealthy people’s yards and became very familiar with the dynamic between the haves and the have-nots. Like Mike, I was raised by a single mom; a working class kid in an otherwise affluent community. I started working under the table when I was ten years old, bussing tables at a restaurant called Jon Patrick’s in Pioneer Square in Seattle, where my waitress sister paid me out of her tips. So most of my life I’ve been serving people one way or another. All those years laboring, I always tried to nurture my creative aspirations, though I didn’t have much of a support system in place. So, I guess more than anything I drew heavily from personal experience in writing Mike.

Mike’s brother has a developmental disability. What research did you conduct in order to write his character?
Another one of my jobs over the decades was working as a caregiver in the homes of developmentally disabled kids. Nate, while he may seem like a bit of a caricature to some, is actually based on a client I once had. One thing I observed many times in these households (which were invariably low income) was the family dynamic, and how much extra responsibility the siblings of special needs kids had to take on to manage the household and how that extra responsibility encroached on their own freedoms, which is the dynamic we see in the Munoz household.

Although he is in his early 20s, I found Mike to be so relatable for both teens and adults. What makes the reader root for Mike and see themselves in him?
I think more than anything self-doubt and yearning, two things we all carry around with us through life. Also, in spite of his warts, Mike is a good person, so that helps.

Did you know about the Alex Awards? How did you feel when you found out you won an Alex? What do you think about your book having a teen readership?
To be honest, I had not heard of the Alex prior to the honor of being awarded one. But when I told my ten year old he was super impressed. That’s when I knew it was a big deal. Winning the Alex has been such an amazing opportunity to connect with those elusive younger readers, since the audience for literary fiction tends to be over forty.

Have you read any of our other Alex winners? Any favorites?
Oh yeah, I’ve read a bunch of them: Humans of New York, Wolf in White Van, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, Everything Matters!, City of Thieves, The Whistling Season, Black Swan Green, The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-time, Peace like a River, Plainsong. I enjoyed every one of those books.

What are you reading now?
I’m currently revisiting a stunning forthcoming debut novel by Melissa Ann Peterson called Vera Violet, about a group of at risk youths in a moribund logging town, which is, I daresay, Alex worthy.